Is D-Line U back? Trajan Jeffcoat and Kobie Whiteside will try to prove it is
The Missouri Tigers have sent several talented defensive linemen to the NFL in recent years. Shane Ray, Aldon Smith, Justin Smith, Kony Ealy, Markus Golden, Michael Sam, Sheldon Richardson, Ziggy Hood and others have made the jump.
The coaching staff on that side of the ball is much different now, but defensive coordinator Steve Wilks and DL coach Jethro Franklin have plenty of talent to work with entering 2021.
Trajan Jeffcoat was a first-team All-SEC selection in 2020. Kobie Whiteside was battling injuries in 2020, but he was a breakout star in 2019. Then, there are guys like Akial Byers on the interior and Chris Turner and Isaiah McGuire on the ends.
So, what can Mizzou do to maximize those guys?
Let’s break it down now.
First, Wilks has a bit of a unique style defensively. During his time in the NFL, he ran a 4-3 defense, but his teams weren’t frequently in their base defense. Oftentimes, his teams had 5 defensive backs on the field.
That’s going to put more pressure on the Mizzou defensive line. But they have the talent to succeed, as long as Wilks comes up with creative ways to showcase the linemen and their talents.
Jeffcoat will need to be moved around more. Now that he has had a breakout season and earned All-SEC honors, he’s not going to catch anyone off-guard.
He has the speed to make plays off the edge. Here he is sacking Alabama QB Bryce Young in the first game last season:
Watch: #Mizzou DL Trajan Jeffcoat had three tackles, including a sack in his MU return. Last October – MU announced he was no longer on the team. Coach Drinkwitz says he got re-enrolled in the University over the summer, and now he's back. pic.twitter.com/DU9diKlTNv
— Andrew Kauffman (@AndrewABC17) September 28, 2020
He finished the year with a team-leading 6 sacks. But having that few sacks and still leading the team is part of Mizzou’s issue.
In the 10-game 2020 campaign, the Tigers recorded a grand total of 19 sacks. That finished No. 9 in the SEC. That’s 1.9 sacks per game. For reference, Alabama and Florida finished with 35 sacks each. That was a little better for the Gators, as they averaged 2.92 sacks per game (in 12 games). Alabama played 13 games, so the Tide averaged slightly fewer sacks per contest (2.69).
To improve this year, the Tigers need to average at least 2 sacks per game. How can they do that?
Well, that’s where Whiteside comes in.
In 2020, Whiteside battled injuries. He finished with only 12 tackles and 0 sacks. In 2019, he recorded an impressive 28 tackles to go with 7.5 sacks.
When Whiteside is healthy, he can wreak havoc up the middle of an offensive line:
So damn strong! Wish he had little more length to him but he’s so tough to move off the spot or stop the bull rushes… Led team in sacks in 2019 and most among returning SEC players!
— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) August 7, 2020
And, watch him completely destroy this play by West Virginia in the Tigers’ 2019 season- opener:
— Joe (@JDec89) September 7, 2019
If he can provide pressure up the middle, it’ll prevent teams from adding extra protection on whatever side Jeffcoat lines up.
Then, there are the other guys who need to step up and contribute alongside the star power of Jeffcoat and Whiteside.
Isaiah McGuire finished second on the team with 3 sacks in 2020. Chris Turner and Akial Byers didn’t have any.
McGuire needs to up his production, but Turner and Byers need to do something this fall. If they can’t provide more than 3 sacks between them, the defense will struggle.
Wilks will have to work to put those 3 guys in positions to have success alongside Whiteside and Jeffcoat.
Byers was at SEC Media Days recently and heaped praise on Wilks and the attitude he brings to the Tigers’ defense:
“It’s crazy learning from him, a man with so much knowledge,” Byers said. “With him like prior being in the (NFL), he comes to work every day. He’s basically explaining to us how the league is, and if you want to play at that level, then you got to do things a certain way and the right way.
“So he instills that in our head day by day, and I continue to learn new things from him every day in the meeting room. Steve Wilks is a great person, a great man, great coach and everything.”
When Wilks was last in the NFL (2019 as the Cleveland Browns’ defensive coordinator), his defense finished No. 20 in the NFL with 38 sacks.
He’s going to have to be creative with this group of defensive linemen because there aren’t many sack masters in the linebacking corps.
Rice transfer Blaze Alldredge is great at making stops in the running game behind the line, but he’s not your typical off-the-edge pass-rushing linebacker. Devin Nicholson only had 1.5 sacks last year.
Safety Martez Manuel is the best non-defensive line pass rushing threat. He had 2.5 sacks in 2020. Expect him to be used in a variety of ways this fall.
But, as it has been in the past decade at Mizzou, the sacks are going to have to come from the defensive line.
The players are in place. Not many SEC teams have a duo on par with Jeffcoat and Whiteside. Can the other players step up? And, can Wilks create pressure with his schemes?
We’ll find out starting Sept. 4 against Central Michigan. If Jeffcoat has a big year, he could work his way into the Round 1 discussion for the 2022 NFL Draft. Whiteside could be a Day 2 pick. We’ll see if they can stay healthy and restore Mizzou’s reputation as “D-Line U” this fall.